I was a page in the mid-1970s, and the experience still evokes not just fond memories but the pride in being part of our democratic process. While technology no longer necessitates that pages “run” between the Capitol and congressional offices, this program offered a unique opportunity for young people to learn the intricacies of our government while learning from one another. Pages from the east and west coasts, from large urban areas and small cities, Democrats and Republicans, lived and worked together, ever ready to assist members of Congress. We stood side by side in the back of the House chamber as President Gerald Ford delivered his first State of the Union address in the aftermath of the Watergate scandal. We bore witness that the peaceful transition of power, as outlined in our Constitution, does indeed work.
The Senate is continuing its page program. Perhaps there is a way for the House to reconstruct its program to continue the rich heritage of the service of congressional pages. In an era when positive dialogue needs to replace vitriolic discourse, engaging young people in the political process is a constructive beginning.
Susan Wachs Goldberg, Clarksville
It was common for House pages to imagine themselves as members of Congress. Why wouldn’t we? Pages were permitted to casually stroll through layers of security into our ornate workspace — the very chamber where wars were declared and two presidents were impeached.
Pages often brought family and friends on tours of the House floor. We’d point out the bullet holes from the 1954 shooting by Puerto Rican nationalists (and recount how brave pages carried away wounded lawmakers). Our visitors would stand in the spot where someone annually announces, before the State of the Union address, “Mr. [or Madame] Speaker, the president of the United States.”
During my time as a page in 1997, my ego was astronomically stroked the day I was asked to speak on the House floor to a large tour group of students. As I stood in the well of the House carrying on about my splendid life as a page, I was certainly convinced that I had arrived.
After my remarks, the first question came from a chaperone, who confidently asked: “Is your mom named Sylvia?”
I was crestfallen. How dare she ask me, an imaginary member of Congress, about the identity of my mother? In retrospect, I’m glad she brought things back down to Earth.
The chaperone indeed knew my mother, who had recently retired as a special-education teacher in Charleston, S.C. In her own childhood, my mother was forced to walk by white schools to attend her separate and unequal black school. Until someone casually suggested that I apply, I had never heard of the page program or visited Washington. My participation was not a matter of patronage or privilege. But somehow I was there. And after my little speech, my mother’s name was uttered in the very room where Lyndon Johnson once said, “We shall overcome.” That’s as American as it gets.